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Brenda Willis

Brenda Willis
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Name: Brenda Willis
Sport: Volleyball
Role: Head Coach
Organisation: Queen's University, Canada
Nationality: Canadian
Date: Apr 2015

As the only woman to be Head Coach of a men’s University Volleyball team in Canada, Brenda is now in her 40th year of coaching.  Having started a new volleyball club in the 1970’s, Brenda went on to achieve a number of competitions and championships including a silver and bronze at the Maccabi Games in Israel.

The FCN chatted to Brenda about her career and her thoughts on why there aren’t more female sports coaches…

Back in the 70’s when my playing career was over, my husband and I decided we wanted to stay in the sport and give back because we had gotten quite a bit out of our time as athletes.  We even met through the sport! We decided to start a club for 17 and 18 year olds, so, we put posters up in all of the high schools and announced try-outs for U18 boys and girls.  The plan was that he was going to coach the boys and I was going to coach the girls.  Right from the beginning, we had about 60 boys come to try out in that age group and only about 5 girls.  The second week,  2 of the girls didn’t come back , then 4 others came;  and because of the turnover and we never really got a core of girls to have a team.  So I thought that I wouldn’t be able to get to coach, or I would have to just  assist for my Husband.  It was actually one of the boy’s fathers who said ‘if you’ve got the equipment, money and gym time for 2 teams, why don’t you run an A and a B team?  So that’s what we ended up doing.  My husband took the A team and I took the B team and we both started coaching.  I had some success fairly early on and in the second year my team was beating his team!  I enjoyed it and thought I was good at it so stuck with it and eventually we both got asked to coach at the University level.  His job was much more demanding than mine, so I ended up saying yes, and going down that path and was fortunate enough to ultimately turn my hobby into a career.

It’s all I’ve really done for a very long time!  Every year is different and has new challenges; we have new players coming in and players graduating. I love the sport and I love interacting with the athletes.  I really thrive in the competitive environment.  I think for me, the idea of working really hard and developing players is very rewarding, and then competition is like a test.  It is a chance to show people how good you are and measure your progress and success.  Even when I was bringing up my kids, I tried to instil that concept.   When they were nervous about a test I’d say ‘if you prepare well you don’t need to be nervous, you just go in there and show them how much you know.’  And that’s how I approach competition;  it’s a chance to show people how good you are. 

I am certainly conscious of it because it is brought to my attention all the time!  When the media wants to talk about our team, very often my gender tends to be a focal point.  I would prefer to be known for my win-loss record and the championships that my teams have won and not for gender, but because there are no other women, it seems to be a big human interest story that I can’t really get away from.

I try to remind media people that when men are coaching women, they don’t get asked what are the disadvantages of coaching the opposite gender.  So, I don’t think that is a question they should be asking me, but they always do.  The answer is pretty simple, I don’t have my pre-game talks in the locker room.  I also don’t try to coach like a man. I think I have found my own coaching style.   I just want to make my athletes as good as I can and motivate them to work really hard.  I don’t really let gender stand in the way, or worry about what other people think!  I don’t believe that stereotypes should limit anyone’s aspirations.  If there is something you want to do, you have to figure out the right path and the process to achieve the necessary level of competence to be successful, and just go after it.

I think you have to have a very organised and integrated approach in everything you do.  I engaged my children in what I did very early on.  They used to attend a lot of practices and they actually got excited about the idea of standing in a ball bin and handing balls out to the players when they needed them!  When they got ancy, they would run around the back of the gym picking up the loose balls and would help put them in the carts.  They grew up in that environment and both went on to play at the university level.  The Department was quite supportive of me having the kids around when I needed them to be.  I think you also need a supportive partner.  Although I ended up divorcing a little over 20 years ago for other reasons,  my ex continued to be very supportive when I was on the road with my team.  He was always willing to take the kids and adjust the arrangements according to my competition schedule. I think you need that kind of support.  It seems that a lot of men want their women to be at home, but there aren’t as many  women who demand that their men to be at home.  I think we are much more forgiving of male partners than male partners are of us.  Perhaps it’s changing a little bit, but I think it’s a really unfortunate thing.  When I grew up, a lot of women weren’t even working full time and so people thought I was crazy.

There are definitely a lot of reasons why more women don’t coach.  I think there is a whole socialisation process that plays a role.  I think at a very young age, a lot of young girls are conditioned to be nice and to share.  That doesn’t always jive within the competitive environment, which can be one that is often win at all costs and ‘every man for himself’, and so it may not be as comfortable an atmosphere for a lot of women.  I am fortunate that  I wasn’t brought up that way.  My mother was a competitive swimmer and sport was a part of my life right from a young age.  It didn’t matter if it was a board game or a puzzle, it was about who could win or who could do it faster.  It was always very competitive!    So I think that the competitive instinct that men have more naturally (maybe it’s an ego centred thing, I don’t know), seems to be a seamless fit for them much more than us.  And that for me is really unfortunate, but I guess it is reality.

Another aspect is, by the time you’re confident and competent enough to take on a team as a Head Coach at an elite level, you’re probably at least in your early to mid- 30s and those are child bearing years.   Perhaps it is just about making decisions based on family priorities, as well.

We hired a Head Coach for our women’s programme at the University last year and it is a very good full time job as a coach with not a lot of other responsibilities at all, and it had a very good salary.  I expected that we would have a lot of women applying for the job, but we didn’t.  We had one female application in a pool of over 30.  I often hear it’s about the lack of opportunities, but I’m not convinced it is.  I think it’s a lack of confidence to apply for opportunities and I think also that the number of programmes that help women get to where they need to be needs to change.  We need far more women’s initiatives that are mentoring in nature.  Men are much better at taking on colleagues and mentoring them to the next level, but for whatever reason I don’t see that happening enough amongst women.  I think that has to change.  So for me, it is two separate issues; one related to training and development and the second relating to confidence and opportunity.   The lack of female coaches at a high level is a real problem and I think we need mentoring and development programmes in an unintimidating environment to help women get to the next level.  I also think women need to believe in themselves more and show confidence and then apply for those positions. 

There was a time when I thought about true gender equity; we were hiring women for women’s teams as a key part of that because of the role model value; but then there was a part of me that thought ‘is that the best service to the female athletes’?  Shouldn’t they get the best coach they can get, regardless of gender’; don’t the female athletes deserve that?   If gender was an issue I wouldn’t have my job!  I also think it is very sad if there’s not at least 25-30% women applying for those positions who are just as capable.   In my experience, unfortunately, they are not applying and we need to figure out why.   If it is because they don’t think they are as capable, then we need to do things to help them gain confidence and make them more capable and then we need to encourage them to apply.  If it is because the culture in competitive sport programs and the associated ‘old boys network’ is unwelcoming, then that needs to be tackled as well,  because in many of these positions, the preference would be to hire a woman for a women’s team.  It wouldn’t be an issue if the pool of women offered the same calibre of coaching as men.   I think that is the case more often than perhaps we are given credit for, and if it isn’t the case then goal should be to make it so!  

he Maccabi Games is an international multi-sport games hosted in Israel; it’s like the Jewish Olympics held every 4 years.  Athletes have to be at least 25% Jewish heritage.  We held try-outs for Jewish athletes across the country and then selected a team to attend the Games.

The standard would be similar to what I coach here at the University level; it would be a middle of the pack Division 1 team in the US.  I had 3 athletes that have played at the international level for different teams on the squad, but we also had current college, university and high school players.  In the competition itself, winning a silver is like winning gold because Israel has their National Team involved, and nobody else has essentially an entire country of Jewish heritage to chose from!

Yes it was!

At our airport, we don’t ever see armed security.  They may be around, but no one is ever holding out a semi-automatic weapon, but when we were checking in to these Games (Canada had about 640 athletes that were boarding planes) there was armed security in the airport everywhere just in case there were anti-Semitic groups wanting to create terror so that kind of thing made it a different level of anxiety for travelling!  But it went very well and there were 60,000 people at the opening ceremony so very similar to any international multi-sport games.

I think I have almost got that out of my system.  I don’t think I am going to do another Maccabi Games.   I believe that taking them to a bronze and then a silver is as far as we can go with that programme.  I think it’s time for someone else to have the opportunity and the challenge.

I am going to be involved with the Pan Am Games that are coming to Toronto, but more on an organisational level than a competitive one, but I am looking forward to that!

Yes, it’s about 2 ½ hours away, but I am going to go into Toronto and be part of it.  And then the Para-Pan Games are after this for people with disabilities.  It’s the third largest multi-sport games in the world and they are expecting 250,000 visitors, 25,000 volunteers and over 10,000 athletes from 41 countries in 51 sports.  So it is a huge thing.  It is very exciting!   I will be involved in the statistics and record keeping side of things, which gives me a front row seat, virtually on the back of the court.

I think my retirement plan is to be involved in coach development and coach mentoring.  I am constantly asked to give clinics all over the place so I fully plan to do that.  Although I have been coaching in the men’s game for a long time, I really hope to help to bring women along in the system and see if we can up the number of women involved.   I’ve got a few more seasons in me, before I go in that direction though.

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